Active Learning: What is it good for?

I spent this week attending a Course Design Institute held by my university’s teaching and learning center. The workshop centered on creating a learner-centered syllabus and aligning course objectives, assessments and activities. I thought I’d share a few quick take-aways related to active learning.

First, the facilitator presented evidence from STEM fields on the value of active learning over lecture-based courses. In particular, I was struck by two studies.

Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics (Freeman et al). is a meta-analysis that reviewed 225 studies comparing student performance in undergraduate STEM courses. This is the stand-out quote from that piece:

“If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial” (Freeman et al 2014: 8413, emphasis added).

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Beginner’s Guide to Simulations: Part 1, Reducing the Workload

Many of our regular readers on ALPS already use simulations and games in their classes.  But plenty of folks find us because they are interested in learning about new-to-them pedagogies, and want some guidance in how to use them in their classes.  For these folks, we are starting a new series here on ALPS: The Beginner’s Guide to Simulations.  This recurring series will focus on helping new adopters (and those who might want some reminders and encouragement!) work through the challenges of using simulations and games in the college classroom.

Before their first time using a simulation in class, most instructors face one or more of the following concerns:

  1. Creating and running a simulation is a lot of work…
  2. ..for little payoff. Simulations are not a good substitute for the tried-and-true lecture for learning.
  3. The simulation will take up too much time in-class, forcing me to give up coverage of important content.
  4. The simulation might fail, either due to my own mistakes or lack of student interest, and will therefore be a waste of time.

These concerns are largely valid, but not necessarily deal breakers. With more than sixty simulations published just in The Journal of Political Science Education and PS: Political Science & Politics in the last ten years, clearly there are a number of scholars who have found designing simulations to be a worthwhile endeavor.  In the first few entries in this series, I’m going to unpack each of these four concerns and propose some ideas and solutions to move us from fearful to excited about using simulations.

Part One: Reducing the Workload of Using Simulations and Games

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Zero Sum Simulations

I’m growing disillusioned with international relations simulations that are, by design, zero-sum. As previously mentioned, it’s currently “simulation time” and I’m running two different simulations. In my upper-level Human Rights course, my students are participating in the Global Problems Summit, which is essentially a mini-Model UN. Although some countries may “win” and others may “lose” with respect to the content of any resolutions based, the nature of the simulation encourages diplomacy and attempts at cooperation and compromise.

In my two sections of Introduction to International Politics, my students are engaged in the International Relations in Action simulation. On the whole, I do like this simulation and think it captures my learning objectives better than Statecraft (which I’ve used the previous four years). The scenarios are interesting and have encouraged the students to think about a number of international situations and appreciate the complexity of international politics.

But, one thing the students have noticed is that many of the scenarios are zero-sum. Continue reading

Process v. outcome in simulations

Chad's simulations were becoming a bit too realistic...
Chad’s simulations were becoming a bit too realistic…

Very occasionally, different parts of one’s life collide with each other, often after you’ve had a bit too much to drink, which further contributes to the further unrolling of the evening.

Any way.

In this case, no drinking (except of cups of tea) was involved for me this week, when I attended a ‘wargame’ of the British renegotiation of European Union membership. Run by Open Europe, the day had two parts, each intended to cast some light on what might happen in, respectively, the current renegotiation and then in the event of a ‘no’ vote in the referendum.

This was a high-rent production. Fancy City venue, live-streaming of the entire event, plus (most importantly) roles being played by People (former ministers and ambassadors): The British were represented by a former Foreign Secretary, Maclom Rifkind, and a former Chancellor, Norman Lamont. All of this built on a previous event in 2013 and given the number of TV camera crews from across Europe, it was not your usual event.

For all that, it was also a very strange affair.

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Simulations are just too amazing

Hell, yeah!
Hell, yeah!

For the past couple of days, I’ve been talking about simulations at an event organised by Peter Bursens and colleagues at the University of Antwerp. If we leave to one side how nice it was to get some many positive comments about this blog from people, then it was a really heartening workshop for more academic reasons.

One of the biggest challenges that users of simulations (and other active learning techniques) face is the lack of a robust evidence base that such pedagogies actually have an educational benefit for students, either at all or above and above ‘conventional approaches’. This workshop was directed precisely at discussing this gap.

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Building new layers of student interaction

I’m gonna design you a game that you can’t refuse…

Last week’s good news came on the same day that I was invited to talk to colleagues at the University of Bath about simulations and role plays.

Felia Allum is running a module/course (actually, Bath calls them units, but you know what I mean) about organised crime in Italy and beyond and had won some funding to support the development of a much more active learning approach, using sims. Together with her Faculty’s e-learning development office, Geraldine Jones, they wanted to explore how this might work and to get some feedback on their ideas.

This kind of thing is exactly what I love about my work: getting a specific project into which to input and (hopefully) develop (plus a trip to Bath, which is always good anyway).

As with many of the other projects I’ve had this kind of role in, it’s something that at first (and indeed, second) glance look to be almost impossible: ideas that I would never have come to by myself.

I’ll not talk in much detail about this project – especially because I’m going to get Felia and Geraldine to do that further down the line – but I do what to draw out two really interesting aspects.

The first is their notion that students should design their own games. We know from the literature that teaching is one of the best ways to learn, and in terms of students developing an appreciation of the dynamics involved in the lives of organised criminals, making them create a game is very powerful.

The flip-side, obviously, is that this is rather daunting: I’ll admit I spent most of a morning trying to work how I might do it without much success. Felia and Geraldine’s way around this is rather good, namely giving the students a fairly rigid template of what is needed and what they have to do, coupled to feedback on a draft version, before any actual gameplay.

The second exciting aspect is about how you get students to internalise and understand the pressures that face criminals. The problem is that those pressures are very different to those facing a university student.

It is precisely through the students’ games that they will work towards this internalisation and understanding, but we talked about how an initial nudge might help them on the way.

With that in mind, we looked at starting the module with another game, to set up some tensions – about money, status, loyalty and trust – that might inform what comes later. My thought was that be having a system of credit for each of these factors would set up a clear signalling mechanism to students, which they could in turn build into their own games (thereby helping with the first point about design).

This is something still in development, but once I’ve had a chance to go through the game I pulled together on the journey home, I’ll be posting it up on my simulations website for you all to see.

Even if you’re not interested in organised crime, if you can get to involved in discussions with colleagues about their projects and ideas, then it’s not only good for them, it’s good for you too. I’ve come away from my day in Bath with a whole new set of thoughts and possibilities to explore.

The Best Laid Plans

Cat and MouseA while back I wrote a series of posts on reworking my first-year seminar. My assumption was that this fall’s version would meet three days a week, as happened in the course’s initial iteration. I recently learned that instead it will meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Given that much of the course involves student-to-student interaction in the classroom, the new schedule necessitated further changes. To start, I dropped the book that I had originally fit into the last third of the semester, and with it plans for a class-wide Twine project. The course now looks like this:

  • Team-based Twines on the book An Ordinary Man (Rwanda).
  • Simulation exercises on the first four cases in Chasing Chaos (Rwanda, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone).
  • Team-based Twines on the last case in Chasing Chaos (Haiti).

Since this is a course for incoming college students, I added The New Science of Learning and some other meta-cognitive content on skills for academic success. This means that students will have on average three writing assignments on readings per week even though the class only meets twice a week, which I think this is a good thing. Students won’t be able to forget about the course between Thursdays and Tuesdays.

As I discussed in my informal assessment back in January, I had a problematic formulation for the briefing memo that prepared students for each Chasing Chaos simulation. I’ve rewritten the assignment instructions accordingly, and created a new sample memo for students to use as a guide. The effort that I’m putting into the design of this course reflects something about how college works that I’ll discuss in more detail in my next two posts.

Multiple and Parallel Worlds: Simulations in Large Classes

For faculty that teach in large classrooms with several hundred students, lecture can seem like the only possible method of instruction. Discussion, let along simulations and games, are seen as better employed in TA-led sections, where the number of students is much more manageable. This may seem especially true for some of the games we discuss on ALPS, such as Diplomacy, which in its classic version is meant for only 7 players, and even in teams becomes unwieldy with more than 21.

At first glance, not the most appealing environment for gaming and role-play. Source.

There are simulations that can work really well in a large classroom setting. A Model United Nations, for example, run as either a General Assembly or split into committees, can be great with 200 students. The same principle holds for any organizational simulation, such as a Model Congress or Model European Union. The Hobbes Game also works regardless of the number of students.

But in other games, 200 students is about 170 too many. Groups are too large, there are high incentives for free-riding, or lots of dead time where students have to wait for others to act. Running one large game in this kind of environment is likely to be unsuccessful, if the game itself is not easily scalable.

Luckily, there is a trick to managing this problem. It involves the use of multiple or ‘parallel’ worlds, where instead of running a single version of the game, you run multiple simultaneous versions, with students split into several smaller groups and each group plays its own self-contained version of game. If you wanted to play Diplomacy, for example, you could bring in several game boards and run 3 or 4 different games at the same time, with a TA adjudicating moves for each independent game. In a UN Security Council simulation, you can run 2 or 3 different security councils, all working on the same issue.

There are several advantages to this. First, it lets you use games and simulations meant for smaller groups in a manageable way, whether during sections or during the main lecture meeting. Second, it lets students see how the same exact starting point can lead to very different results, and allows them to discuss the reasons for those differences (structure? social? individual ability?). It also creates some neat opportunities that smaller versions of the game may not have. For example, in Diplomacy, you could allow teams representing the same country in different game worlds to talk strategy with each other. Students can then see how the same strategy or goals can have vastly different effects depending on the actions of other teams and players.

So if you teach large classes and want to try out a game or simulation in your class, consider the parallel worlds model. It’s a great way to bring some more active components into the classroom!

For more on this, check out Jason Keiber’s paper, “Dividing Up the Game: From Serial to Parallel
presented at the 2013 APSA TLC.

Puzzle Pieces: Part 3

Jigsaw Puzzle 3As I’ve discussed in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I’m redesigning my first-year seminar for its second iteration. In the original version of the course last fall, students individually completed frequent reading responses on the three books I had assigned. Teams of students produced Twines on each of the books. These projects enabled students to interact with each other much more than during in-class discussions of their reading responses, but but their interest seemed to flag as the semester progressed — though the class’s 8:00 a.m. start time was probably also a contributing factor.

Whether the lack of interest was caused by boredom or sleep deprivation, I think my first-semester college students need to engage in a greater variety tasks. But as I mentioned in my previous posts, my choices are constrained by my course outcomes: interaction with peers, practice in developing higher order thinking skills, and exposure to cultural perspectives that are different from their own.

I am keeping the reading response technique; I use it in all my courses and it works well. The team-based Twine on An Ordinary Man seemed to be a success last fall, so I’ll keep that also. The Chasing Chaos book and its associated simulations generated a favorable student response when I first used them in another course, so I’m somewhat confident the same will occur in the first-year seminar. That leaves the third book, The Big Truck That Went By.

The Chasing Chaos simulations might be a different enough experience for students to remain engaged while working on a second Twine in the last part of the course. The problem with this idea is that in the first iteration of the course, teams wrote their Twines on each book’s protagonist. In The Big Truck That Went By, the protagonist is a U.S. journalist, and I don’t think students will benefit much from creating a fictionalized version of what he recounts in his book.

Would it be possible to involve the entire class in the creation of a single Twine on post-earthquake Haiti? Maybe. This is a video version of what I’m thinking of — the player chooses from one of several roles but the storylines derive from an integrated body of content.

The tricky part is figuring out how to build in individual accountability and a means of assessing it. I could leave the organization of responsibilities up to the students as a lesson in project management, but I should probably establish some signposts before students begin so that they have something against which to measure their performance. Or perhaps the whole idea — which I really did think of as I was writing this post — is likely to be an abysmal failure. Thoughts and suggestions are welcome.

Puzzle Pieces: Part 2

Jigsaw Puzzle 2As mentioned in my first post in this series, Chasing Chaos by Jessica Alexander corresponds well to the student outcomes I created for my first-year seminar — in part because of the associated simulations I had created for another course. But my informal assessment of these simulations last fall leads me to think that they need three major adjustments.

First, the negotiation phase for each simulation can be shortened to only one class period. If no team achieves its goal in the allotted time, that’s ok — these are crisis scenarios. Second, I am dropping the reward for a unanimous agreement between teams so that students are less likely to abandon their roles in pursuit of earning the maximum number of possible points. This will create more contentiousness and by default result in a proportion of student teams “losing” what they didn’t have to begin with, but again, I think this is ok.

Third, the briefing memos that I assigned to prepare students for the simulations were too complex. This type of analytic writing exercise is detailed in CATs (“analytic memos,” pages 177-180). As noted in CATs, the technique requires large amounts of time and effort from both students and the instructor, but it serves as a high-quality and realistic skill-building exercise for students. In my case and in contrast to the recommendations of the authors of CATs, I grade the memos as formal assignments  — otherwise students won’t do them.

Because of these three concerns, I have altered the instructions for the briefing memos as follows, and I have inserted information for the Rwanda simulation for the purposes of example:

You are employed by the Humanitarian Information Unit at the U.S. Department of State (HIU). A new President has been inaugurated, and the President’s senior foreign policy advisors seek recommendations on U.S. responses to emerging political and economic conflicts around the world. The HIU has been assigned the task of providing these advisors with recommendations that conform to the mission of the HIU. Your job is to write a briefing memo for your superiors in the following format:

♦ Single-spaced paragraphs with a blank line between each paragraph, 11 or 12 point font, and no longer than two pages.
♦ Correct identification of memo’s author and recipient. The sub-heading of “Recommendation,” followed by a single concise sentence that states your  recommendation.
♦ The sub-heading “Justification,” followed by at least one paragraph explaining why the U.S. government should adopt your recommendation as foreign policy. Background sources should be referenced using in-text citations rather than with footnotes or endnotes—for example, “(Eggers, 87)”.

See the sample briefing memo for guidance.

 Background sources:

♦ Samantha Power, “Bystanders to genocide: why the United States let the Rwandan genocide happen,” Atlantic Monthly 288, 2 September 2001.
♦ Jason K. Stearns, “Congo’s Peace: Miracle or Mirage?” Current History 106(700), May 2007.
♦ Thomas Turner, “Will Rwanda End Its Meddling in Congo?” Current History 112(754), May 2013.
♦ Jeffrey Gettleman, “The Global Elite’s Favorite Strongman,” New York Times, 4 September 2013.

The conflict:

A previously-unknown armed group calling itself the Hutu Liberation Front (HLF) has attacked three Congolese villages near the Rwandan border. The attacks killed the villages’ residents and several Congolese soldiers who were stationed at a checkpoint along a nearby highway that runs between Kinshasha and Kigali. The Rwandan government claims that the HLF is under the direction of Congo’s ruling political party and it has mobilized Rwandan army units for a potential incursion into Congo to fight the HLF. Simultaneously soldiers in Congo’s army who identify themselves as Tutsis have mutinied against their commanders and are leading a rebellion against the country’s elected government. French and U.S. intelligence agencies report that the mutiny may have been encouraged by the Rwandan government.